Hands up who likes polytunnels?

PUBLISHED: 15:12 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:14 20 February 2013

Students picking strawberries

Students picking strawberries

Anthony Snell, award-winning soft fruit grower at Harewood End, tells Corinne Westacott that you can use polytunnels and still look after the environment.

I'm not keen. If we'd wanted Herefordshire fields to be encased in plastic we could have invited the artist, Christo. (You know - the chap who, unaccountably, gift-wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin). No, give me instead the raw red earth embroidered with soft mounds of scarlet strawberries resting their heads on golden straw. And let there be sun-kissed peasants in the fields with daisy strewn hats and mugs of cider, joyously plucking ripe fruit as the Tesco lorry waits concealed, for now, under one of those nice old fashioned hay-ricks...

Alright, maybe this is a tad strawberry pie-in-the sky but I have to tell you that Anthony Snell doesn't particularly like polytunnels per se. Even though he spends a fortune on the things every year down at Pencoyd Court Farm, by the side of the A49 at Harewood End.

In fact, Snell, who is chairman of the West Midlands NFU horticulture board, this year picked up the Grower of the Year award at the agricultural equivalent of the Oscars held in London. With his wife, Christine, he has, in ten years, turned a small and not overwhelmingly successful vegetable farm into one of the best soft fruit businesses in the country. Polytunnels, loathed, lambasted and for good reason unloved in this county, have been a key to their success.

"I don't like polytunnels," he admitted when I spoke to him in the company's new office block. "They involve a huge amount of expense, work and effort and, if we could grow without them, we'd be delighted."

The controversial tunnels are a pragmatic business solution for a man who comes from a third generation of Herefordshire farmers. Having studied at the Royal Agricultural College, Anthony started out by helping his uncle Norman who had a fruit farm at Pencoyd. When Norman had a stroke, Anthony rented the land from him. He then married Christine, a farmer's daughter from North Herefordshire, and they took the plunge, acquiring a massive mortgage and 100 acres of bare land.

"We grew vegetables, traditional cereal and potatoes. We lost a lot of money to start with. We had to sell half the land within the first two years. Then we made a decision twelve years ago to concentrate on soft fruit. That was the best thing we've done."

Now, they produce 950 tonnes of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries and 350 tonnes of blackcurrants and supply to Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks and Spencer. The awards have followed together with delegations of farmers coming to see the example the Snells are setting in combining modern farming with a proper respect for the environment and a recognition of the importance of good P.R.

Anthony has been putting forward his view of the polytunnel debate since the issue erupted five or so years ago. He tactfully acknowledges that his cause has not been helped by certain other growers who, he says, "were not as responsible as they should have been, expanding very quickly and under-estimating local people's opinions".

The failures of some have cast a pervasive shadow over those who, like Anthony Snell, run their farms according to best practice. He insists that the use of polytunnels does not inevitably lead to some kind of post-apocalyptic silent spring. The excesses which have been witnessed in the north of the county - river levels lowered by irresponsible irrigation; enormous caravan parks created to house workers; tunnels erected right next to housing - have tended to result in the a blanket condemnation of farming under plastic.

Snell says he is not angry at the anti-lobby but he is clearly exasperated that his method of farming has not being properly explained: "There have been some horrendously stupid things in the press," he says. "I've heard that the fruits are drip fed chemicals etcetera. Nothing could be further from the truth."

He quotes the example of a soil scientist who, at a meeting in Ross, stood up and said nothing would grow in the soil after the strawberries. "And I invited him and said, 'Come and see, we'll get our best crop of wheat after the strawberries'. But he never bothered to come."

On the Snell farm, at least, good ecology and assiduous recycling has to go hand in hand with business. "By using polys we bring in the crops earlier and so we reduce imports. We use half the agri-chemicals that we used to and there is better pollination because the beneficial insects love it in there." Taste is also vital. "Flavour comes first", he says, "yield, second."

They plant wildflowers at the margins of their fields and clover is grown in the tunnels themselves to improve the soil for next year's crop. As for the damning cry of "mono-culture", Anthony rebuffs the charge: "We're quite different in the way we've got polytunnels, then a field of wheat, then a field of poplars. And we rotate our strawberries around the place." The polytunnels are moved from field to field so no earth is permanently covered.

The RSPB regularly sends an independent surveyor to monitor bird species on the farm. At the last count, forty-nine different species were spotted including larks, little grebe, woodpeckers and owls. This was one of the highest numbers of bird species found on any farm in Herefordshire. It pleased Anthony, whose muddy copy of The Tractor Driver's Book of Birds was in evidence on his desk: "It really showed everyone that, although we are an intensive farm, we've got the birds."

The farm is also currently running the biggest trial in the U.K. of pale green polythene on their tunnels. It has been developed to try to minimise the visual impact on the environment. Prettier poly? Well, it hasn't magically made the tunnels disappear but it does produce less of a blinding glare. "There's a natural concern," Anthony acknowledges. "We've got a lovely county like Herefordshire and people think the whole of it is going to be shrink-wrapped. It's not going to happen."

Anthony's personal opinion is that conventional farming using minimum chemicals is the way forward if we want to continue to grow enough food to feed the planet. But organic fruit farming, he points out, actually relies on polytunnels. They are greatly
expanding the farm's organic blackcurrant crop this year.

The other question, of course, concerns all that imported foreign labour. Will Harewood End and Pencoyd be swallowed up by Eastern European drop-outs who will run amok in the furrows, occupy all the available council housing and soak up state funds?

Snell is at pains to point out that his seasonal workers from countries like Poland, Romania and Moldova are "young, bright university students, paying tax and national insurance, earning quite a lot of money and spending a lot of money here as tourists. They are young and fit. They don't use social services, they don't need housing because we put them up. And they go back home."

The job of acting as mother hen to the students falls on Christine. "Most of the students live where we live, about a mile down the road," says Anthony. "Almost in our garden," he adds, slightly ruefully. The Snells do have more than their fair share of late night parties to endure for the sake of the business. On weekends the farm lays on coach trips for the students to places like Warwick Castle, Stonehenge or Alton Towers where they spend large wodges of their well-earned cash and scream in Polish or Romanian on the white-knuckle rides.

So why not employ local students and take them to theme parks? "Believe me, I would love to employ British students. It would be a lot easier for us." Snell thinks it's the physical labour that puts them off. And they probably want more money. He reminisces, if that is the right word, about the bad old days when rather dubious local pickers would turn up for work, give names that were probably false and then absent themselves on dole day. If it rained, they'd pack up and go home. Now he has a reliable temporary work-force backed up by a staff of twenty permanent locals, and, thanks to a soft fruit grower's version of Center Parcs, he can guarantee pickers a full working day under cover and a weekly wage of about £250.

Without the availability of the seasonal incomers, Anthony says the farm could never have grown, could never have ploughed the millions it does back into the local economy.

At the moment Anthony Snell's proudest achievement, is the new office block and packing facility which has been built on-site. He must have had to swallow hard before sinking three-quarters of a million pounds into this building. It has streamlined the whole business. Having the courage to take a risk with this amount of investment is part of the ethos of the Snell's business: risk combined with hard work.

The hardest graft has had to be put in while Anthony and Christine's two sons, now aged eight and six, have been growing up. There seems to be some realisation that work has loomed over-large for the family. "The last two years have been the hardest ever, building this place. That's out of the way now, so hopefully, we can spend a little more family time". The Snells have bought a holiday cottage far from the strawberry fields on the island of Jura. There, Anthony can be confident the mobile phone won't work and the family can go fishing, visit the seals and walk the hills.

I wondered if working together as a couple might be difficult but Anthony was unequivocal about that. "We work very well together. And we spur each other on."

The Snells are not sure yet if their young sons will feel the sweet strawberry juice running in their veins and want to carry on the farm. And as regards the politics of farming and the polytunnel controversy, he remembers his dad telling him not to let that sort of thing get it the way. "The most important thing, he said, was not to take your eye off the ball. The most important thing is just to get the job done."


Pencoyd Court Farm will be taking part in the LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) Open Day on Sunday June 1st. Farm tours at 11 and 2. Because of health and safety requirements all visitors should book on 01989 730229. £3 per person (in aid of Pencoyd and Tretire Church) includes a strawberry smoothie drink.

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